Top staffers and consultants for now-former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ successful 2016 campaign provided a list of potential donors—some of whom were not allowed to give to his campaign directly—to a nonprofit organization that would spend money to support his election without disclosing the identity of the donors, according to the consent order released last month by the Missouri Ethics Commission. The commission also found hard evidence that Greitens’ campaign manager coordinated with the dark money operation by discussing strategic advertising needs with a consultant for the nonprofit. 

In the settlement, Greitens, who resigned in 2018 amid multiple scandals, agreed to pay a fine in order to settle two state campaign finance law violations tied to unreported in-kind contributions to his campaign from anonymously funded groups supporting him. At the same time, the ethics commission dismissed several other allegations against Greitens contained in a complaint filed by former state Rep. Jay Barnes, who led a legislative committee that investigated Greitens. 

Though the headlines have mainly focused on the fines Greitens will have to pay and the fact, which Greitens has sought to amplify, that the commission stated it did not find evidence of “wrongdoing” by Greitens personally, the facts detailed in the settlement provide an all-too-rare look at the inner workings of “dark money” in elections. It shows how political campaigns can work behind the scenes with nonprofits that keep their donors secret, facilitating fundraising for and discussing strategy with the secretive groups that go on to spend the money raised to benefit the campaigns.  

Donors Steered to Dark Money Group

As CREW has previously detailed, during the 2016 Missouri Republican gubernatorial primary election, a nonprofit organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code called Freedom Frontier gave nearly $4.4 million to a federally registered super PAC called LG PAC. LG PAC, in turn, spent millions on ads attacking Greitens’ opponents and praising him. Freedom Frontier, which does not disclose its contributors, was the super PAC’s only donor. Another nonprofit, American Policy Coalition, gave $2 million to a federal super PAC called SEALs for Truth, which turned around and gave $1.975 million to Greitens’ campaign committee. Freedom Frontier and American Policy Coalition eventually listed each other as related tax-exempt organizations when they filed their tax returns covering the 2016 election. 

The settlement released by the Missouri Ethics Commission makes clear that, unlike the public, the Greitens campaign had insight into who Freedom Frontier’s contributors were. In the second half of 2015, the Greitens campaign’s finance director and a fundraising consultant “assembled a list of potential contributors who either could not give, or elected not to give, directly” to the campaign. 

According to the evidence described in the settlement, a “political consultant” for the campaign then directed the fundraising staffers to refer those potential donors to a man named Tom Norris, who was working with Freedom Frontier. The consultant provided a “Freedom Frontier donor sheet” that Greitens’ finance staff could give to the potential contributors it planned to call who were interested in giving to the outside group. 

The Greitens campaign consultant said in an email to the finance staff that he would “prep” Norris to make follow up calls to the potential Freedom Frontier donors. The consultant also said in an email that he and several Greitens staffers should coordinate talking points with Norris and a lawyer named David Langdon, who is known for his work with dark money groups, that they could use while steering potential donors to Freedom Frontier. Langdon was also an officer of American Policy Coalition.

Excerpt from Missouri Ethics Commission consent order with Greitens for Missouri

The consent order does not name the “political consultant” who facilitated the Greitens campaign’s directing of potential contributors to Freedom Frontier, but context strongly suggests it is Nick Ayers, who went on to serve as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. As CREW first reported, when Ayers joined the Trump administration he disclosed on his executive branch financial disclosure form that he consulted for both the Greitens campaign and Freedom Frontier.

The “political consultant” is also described in the settlement as working for C5 Creative Consulting, the firm that Ayers owned at the time. When LG PAC began placing media buys in Missouri, Greitens’ campaign manager sent an email to a vendor for the Greitens campaign, saying, “Hoping this is NA.” According to the settlement, NA, which are Ayers’ initials, is a reference to the political consultant who worked to steer contributors to Freedom Frontier. 

Excerpt from Missouri Ethics Commission consent order with Greitens for Missouri

While not named in the settlement, Austin Chambers, who is currently the head of the Republican State Leadership Committee and previously worked at C5 Creative Consulting, was the Greitens campaign’s manager. According to a Missouri Times profile of Chambers, Ayers was involved in Chambers’ hiring for the position. “He did a ton of work on the race, but he didn’t ask to be campaign manager. Eric and I sat down with him and asked him to take on the role,” Ayers told reporter Rachel Herndon Dunn. 

The relationship between Ayers and Chambers appears to be central to one of the charges against the Greitens campaign that the Missouri Ethics Commission was able to make stick. Though the political consultant who appears to be Ayers had “ostensibly disconnected” from the Greitens campaign by terminating C5’s contract with it in March or April 2016, he and the campaign manager apparently still discussed campaign matters. 

In late July 2016, according to the ethics commission, the campaign manager expressed to the consultant during a phone conversation that he was concerned about the Springfield, MO media market. Soon after the phone call, LG PAC spent nearly $100,000 on ads in the Springfield market. When a vendor flagged that LG PAC was spending there in a July 28, 2016 email, the campaign manager replied, “Well at least he listened when I told him that we were worried about Brunner [another candidate in the race] in Springfield.” 

Excerpt from Missouri Ethics Commission consent order with Greitens for Missouri

The Missouri Ethics Commission noted that while Missouri law at the time did not place limits on contributions by PACs to campaigns in the state, the campaign was still obligated to report the coordinated expenditures LG PAC made on its behalf in its campaign finance disclosure reports, which it did not do. As a result, the commission found there was probable cause to find that Greitens’ campaign violated Missouri campaign finance law and fined the campaign $98,417. 

The coordination finding by the commission also directly contradicts comments Chambers made to the press. In December 2017, after CREW revealed Ayers’ disclosure of his work with Freedom Frontier, Chambers told the Kansas City Star that “[t]he campaign didn’t coordinate with any of the outside groups, or anyone affiliated with any of the outside groups.” During the election, Chambers also told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Langdon “does not have any relationship to the campaign — I don’t know him.” The consent order shows that Greitens’ campaign manager received an email suggesting a phone call with Langdon regarding directing potential donors his and Norris’s way. 

The Missouri Ethics Commission also investigated whether the Greitens campaign “funneled” contributions through American Policy Coalition and SEALs for Truth, potentially violating Missouri campaign finance law. But while the commission identified “email discussions in general terms about directing potential contributors to unnamed nonprofit corporations,” it did not obtain specific evidence showing that the Greitens campaign directed any contributors to American Policy Coalition. 

“Restricted” Donors 

The consent order signed by Greitens mentions that some of the potential donors steered to Freedom Frontier “could not give” money directly to the Greitens campaign, but does not explain what prevented them from contributing. Evidence gathered as part of the investigation into Greitens by a special committee of the Missouri House of Representatives provides some clues.

Michael Hafner, a Missouri-based political consultant who worked on the Greitens campaign in its early stages, testified under oath that he was involved in conversations, including with specific donors, while he was part of the campaign where nonprofits were discussed as vehicles for concealing donors. Hafner also testified about possible motivations for establishing entities to conceal the identity of donors.

During one of his interviews, Hafner commented on “a memo developed on people in financial services contributing” to Greitens’ campaign, which he said would have been sent to a major supporter who would be raising money for the campaign. Hafner also said he had “conversations” with the supporter “about c4s and nonprofits contributing to the campaign.” Acknowledging that people in the financial services industry are sometimes referred to as restricted donors due to Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, Hafner said the supporter “had a lot of contacts in that world and wanted to look for avenues for ways that they could contribute.”

Excerpt from May 29, 2018 Special Investigative Committee on Oversight interview with Michael Hafner

The complaint filed by former Missouri Rep. Barnes, which built on the evidence gathered by the special committee, contained additional evidence that the Greitens campaign sought to work with “restricted” donors. In a December 2015 email, the campaign’s finance director wrote to Ayers about a “restricted donor” that the campaign wanted him to “reach out to.” Ayers wrote that he would “buzz” her soon regarding the “restricted donor.” 

Excerpt from complaint submitted to the Missouri Ethics Commission by former state Rep. Jay Barnes

In another email included in the complaint, someone described as “an early supporter and fundraiser” for Greitens emailed the campaign’s finance director in June 2016 about an individual who the fundraiser believed was “not allowed to give” money to the Greitens campaign “due to compliance reasons” because the individual “manages money for the state of Missouri.” The fundraiser advised the campaign’s finance director that Greitens could “mention the 501(c)(4) if applicable.”

Excerpt from complaint submitted to the Missouri Ethics Commission by former state Rep. Jay Barnes

In his testimony, Hafner also raised the possibility of money being solicited from foreign sources, saying “there were conversations that we had where foreign money was discussed … and the possibility of foreign money, you know, being contributed to an entity. There were those discussions that were being had in the early stages.” Hafner acknowledged, however, that he had no “direct knowledge” of any contributions by foreign nationals being made since he left the campaign early on in the election cycle. 

Evidence included in the Barnes complaint also sheds light on what the Missouri Ethics Commission may have meant when it referred to potential donors “who elected not to give” directly to the Greitens campaign that were steered towards Freedom Frontier. When a campaign staffer emailed about potential donors to the campaign who were Democrats, campaign manager Chambers replied, “If they want to give, C4 would probably be better so that they don’t appear on our reports.”   

Excerpt from complaint submitted to the Missouri Ethics Commission by former state Rep. Jay Barnes
The Dark Money Playbook 

It is unlikely that the 2016 Missouri Republican gubernatorial primary is the only election where the playbook used by the Greitens campaign to facilitate restricted or problematic donors giving to a supportive nonprofit that would conceal their identities was utilized. In fact, several of the operatives involved with Freedom Frontier and the Greitens campaign have conspicuously overlapped in other races where dark money spending became a significant issue.

As Russ Choma detailed in 2014 for OpenSecrets, in multiple races candidates that employed Ayers were boosted by spending from dark money nonprofits and super PACs that ran ads tearing down their rivals. Both Norris and Langdon had ties to the anonymously-funded outside groups. 

In 2014, for instance, Ayers ran Bruce Rauner’s successful campaign for Illinois governor. As the preliminary maneuvering in the race was underway in 2013, a group called the Jobs & Progress Fund began running ads attacking one of his potential rivals in the Republican primary, then-Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL). At the time, Langdon was listed as the nonprofit’s treasurer on its tax return and Norris was the group’s chairman. 

About a month before the March 2014 primary, another nonprofit group called the Mid America Fund began running ads attacking several Republicans in the primary, but not Rauner. Tax returns later revealed more than 90 percent of Mid America Fund’s revenue in 2014 came from two other nonprofits, the Government Integrity Fund and A Public Voice, Inc. Norris had previously been listed as the president of the Government Integrity Fund while Langdon was previously the treasurer for A Public Voice when it was known as Protect Your Vote, Ohio. The Government Integrity Fund also paid Ayers’ C5 Creative Consulting for consulting that year while A Public Voice paid another company, Jenson Strategic Partners, that used the same address as C5. 

A similar confluence of Ayers-affiliated candidate and anonymous outside spending occurred in Georgia’s Republican Senate primary in 2014 as well. At the time, Ayers was a partner at the media buying firm Target Enterprises that was paid millions by the Senate campaign of now-Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who Ayers is related to by marriage. Perdue’s campaign was run by Paul Bennecke, who had previously worked with Ayers at the Republican Governors Association. According to OpenSecrets, he was paid via his consulting firm, Jenson Strategic Partners. 

As Perdue sought to win the Republican nomination for the seat, he was aided by the more than $2 million a super PAC called Citizens for a Working America PAC spent to boost him and attack his primary opponent, then-Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA). All but $30,000 of the super PAC’s money came from two sources: the Government Integrity Fund and the Jobs and Progress Fund. Langdon was the super PAC’s treasurer at the time. Another vendor utilized by Citizens for a Working America PAC that year, but for a different race, was 406 Enterprises, which is owned by Norris.  

Following OpenSecretsreporting on Ayers and the dark money in the Georgia Senate race, he acknowledged to the the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he had “worked with outside groups in Georgia” during the 2014 cycle, but denied there was illegal coordination between the Perdue campaign and the outside groups. Ayers said “a firewall was put in place at Target Enterprises that prevented coordination with the Perdue campaign, which is common practice in the industry.”    

Freedom Frontier’s Last Hurrah

Greitens resigned in May 2018 after striking a deal with prosecutors to have a computer tampering charge against him dropped that stemmed from the misuse of a charity donor list for political fundraising. Soon after, CREW’s deputy director, Donald Sherman, published an op-ed in the Kansas City Star noting that despite the resignation “the operatives and organizations that allowed donors to support Greitens financially while remaining secret are still involved in politics and using similar tactics.” 

During the 2018 election cycle, American Policy Coalition contributed to six federal super PACs, contributing more than $1 million in anonymously-sourced funds. Three of the super PACs list Norris as their treasurer in Federal Election Commission filings while Langdon is listed as the custodian of records for one of them and previously served in that role for another. His law firm, Langdon Law, was also paid by three of the other super PACs that received contributions from American Policy Coalition.

Freedom Frontier only supported one federal super PAC in the 2018 election cycle, making 14 contributions totaling more than $1 million to Ohio Conservatives for a Change, which accounted for roughly a third of the super PAC’s total funding. During the election, Ohio Conservatives for a Change backed then-Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted in the Ohio Republican gubernatorial primary before switching to then-Attorney General Mike DeWine after Husted dropped out to become DeWine’s running mate.

Norris was quoted in the press as a spokesman for Ohio Conservatives for a Change and his company, 406 Enterprises, was paid $47,000 for general campaign consulting and digital work. Langdon was also involved with the super PAC, serving as its assistant treasurer. His law firm was also paid $9,450 for legal work. Ohio Conservatives for a Change also received $6,750 in-kind from Freedom Frontier in the form of legal fees paid to Langdon Law.  

Ohio Conservatives for a Change received its final contribution from Freedom Frontier on October 29, 2018. That is likely the last contribution the nonprofit ever made to a super PAC. According to OpenCorporates, which aggregates corporate business filings, Freedom Frontier dissolved as a corporate entity on November 26, 2018.       

In what might not be a coincidence, Freedom Frontier’s apparent shutdown occurred just six days after CREW filed a complaint with the IRS against the group over its excessive political spending in 2016 and updated a complaint it had previously filed with the FEC against Freedom Frontier, LG PAC, American Policy Coalition, and SEALs for Truth over the effort to conceal the identity of donors supporting Greitens’ electoral efforts. 

Though Freedom Frontier has apparently shut down and the Missouri Ethics Commission released the consent order with Greitens that does not mean the dark money group’s legal exposure is over. The FEC, for instance, has previously taken action against defunct organizations.

By law, the FEC keeps its enforcement matters confidential until they are concluded and CREW has yet to be informed that the complaint involving Freedom Frontier and American Policy Coalition has been resolved. In September 2019, CREW sued the FEC over its failure to act on the complaint. The commission, which currently lacks the quorum necessary to take many actions, failed to respond and the clerk of the District Court of DC entered a notice of default last month.

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